As a recent Ph.D. graduate and new faculty member at Iowa State University, I find many new prospective Ph.D.s asking me several questions and for advice on going through the same process and path to the Ph.D. in Higher Education. In fact, I could have had free coffee everyday for a month if I had accepted every invite to talk. The process is inherently unique to each student. As students, we typically bring our own experiences and background with us when we embark on a new journey and use these experiences as safety nets when we are challenged or introduced with a new idea. I certainly embody a working class student trying to navigate and find my place in the ivory tower, which can be complicated and make one so vulnerable, they are ashamed or embarrassed to ask questions. I recently have noticed shifts in the culture of students beginning the Ph.D. or Masters process as many come from working class backgrounds and ask the questions many are too afraid to ask. What does prospectus mean? What are cognates? What does a “defense” mean?
When asked for my advice/suggestions/answers on Ph.D. programs and process, I find myself wanting to provide deep and thoughtful answers. I remember entering with such ignorance about the system, about the process, and about my vulnerability.
With this, I thought sharing my suggestions and recent experiences would be helpful for others. To that end, I present my two cents:
1. What courses did you find most helpful inside and outside of the department?
a. Ethics and Social Justice. These courses defined my role as an activist leader, researcher, and educator. This courses exposed many issues for me including my own white privilege, social class disparities in our society, etc. This is critical if you are going into higher education administration or the faculty track for working with diverse groups of students.
b. Doctoral Research Seminar. I wrote my entire prospectus in this class! That is my first advice, use every class to focus a paper, project on your dissertation topic and use this course to write your prospectus. Many other students didn’t and they fell behind. The ability to massage and deep reflect on your topic and WHY you are researching the area is beneficial!
c. Intro to Doctoral Studies. I learned HOW to be a doc student in this course, how to read, and most importantly, how to write. I also found a group of students for writing partners and a community that shared similar experiences.
d. Politics and Policy in higher Ed. Much of my qualitative research and articles surround policy analysis, so this courses allowed me to understand overall policy and the issues that influence it.
e. Advanced Qualitative Studies. I wrote my pilot study in this course which was helpful to test my questions and hone my dissertation research. The pilot study laid a foundation for the justification of my dissertation research.
3. What professional organizations would you recommend someone follow?
a. ACPA (Student Affairs administer route)
b. ASHE (research focused – faculty route)
c. AERA (research focused – faculty route)
d. NASPA (Student Affairs administer route)
e. All are relevant no matter which route you go, this is just my take on the significance of each and how I’ve placed my role as a researcher, administrator, and faculty member.
4. How long does it typically take for someone to finish the program?
This depends on if you work full time or not (yes people do it). I worked full time during half of the program and it took me 3.5 years for coursework and over 2.5 for my prelims/dissertation. I may not be a good representation because I am a self-described “beast mode” kind of person. (See below for binge writing information).
5. How was your experience with prelims and dissertation writing?
a. I wrote prelims over a summer while I worked full time so I only had time to write in the evenings and on the weekends. The beauty of my program is that you develop your questions and can use these to focus your dissertation research. I wrote 80 pages over the summer and used almost all of it in my dissertation. I passed without revisions, which I couldn’t believe! when you have strict deadlines and small windows of time to write, you push through and focus.
b. The dissertation writing was hard for me because of the dense amount of data I had to analyze and organize for my findings. I talked about it a lot with my advisor, friends, parents, people that had no idea what I was talking about, other faculty members, PhD students, undergraduates. I am an external processor so this helped me to make sense of it and organize it in my head and how I would present it to others. I also have a great colleague and friend that had just defended his dissertation the semester before me. He had the same methodology so we would go to lunch and talk, I went to his defense, and we exchanged manuscripts. Find a writing partner or group!
6. How did you go about maintaining wellness and work/school/life balance?
a. With graduating from a counseling program for my Masters, I feel that I have a pretty good grasp on self-care. I practice yoga and go to class 2/week (even during my prelims and dissertation writing). There were a lot of parallels in the transformation of my yoga practice and my dissertation writing. It honestly helped me get through prelims and the research.
b. I get massages once/month. That’s right, I prioritized my health and sanity. I did this because I was selfish but because I deserved it!
c. I took time off if I needed it. After my prospectus which I passed, I cried for 2 days. The committee wanted me to change so much and I felt like they killed my spirit or momentum. I had to put my research away for a couple months after that day to regain my passion and motivation. This worked out for me as I LOVE my topic. That’s right, and I still LOVE it! You have to pick something you are excited about or it gets hard to power through.
7. Is there anything that I haven’t asked that I should?
Faculty vs. Administrative careers: Something that sticks out to me for the program is to start thinking early on if you’d like to go the faculty route or the administrative route. You can do both but you will need to publish and have an active research agenda applying for faculty jobs. Many faculty jobs also want you to have administrative experience so it can be a catch 22. I would suggests having at least a couple articles (co-authored) and a book chapter or two by the time you graduate. I found it a good compliment to my administrative roles while enrolled in the program, however it can be VERY overwhelming. Writing my dissertation while working 60 hours a week was TOUGH. I still think my brain is recovering. Make sure you balance and prioritize writing into your work schedule.
Family/friends: I do not know an individual’s personal background but I do not have children so that helped me to really be selfish while I was finishing. My partner was super supportive and knew that he had to give me distance during that past year. I was very transparent with my family and friends and told them between work and writing that I would be unavailable. I sent a mass email and facebook post letting the world know that I was unavailable and that I was sorry for all that I would miss. I even missed my dad’s birthday because I wrote for 10 hours one day and lost track of time!
Binging: Unfortunately, I function as a “binge” writer because I have to with my work schedule. I would have liked the flexibility to write each day, but in essence, binge writing is how I finished!
Focused projects: Best advice is to focus all projects in coursework toward your dissertation topic. This SAVED me time and energy in the writing process. Also, use the doctoral research seminar course (if you have one) to write your prospectus!!!
Stay in the project: This contradicts my advice on taking time off if you need it but when you are not working on your dissertation, it takes even longer to mentally prepare and become involved in the research or to get in the groove again. Read an article a week, write for 10 minutes every day. Whatever small actions you can take to remain focused, the better.
Last, trust the process and know that there is an end. Surround yourself with motivated people and schedules. It is a vulnerable, roller coaster of emotions, but it is worth it in the end. I recently landed the faculty career of my dreams after completing and my life will allow for so much more.